I've decided, after writing an obnoxious amount and still not seeing the end of it, that a little restructuring would do good for this endeavor.
To date, there has been 12 issues of Ironheart comics published, and my first instinct was to discuss the two collected editions (Riri Williams and Choices) before discussing Invincible Iron Man 596: The search for Tony Stark which is, as of the time of writing this sentence is the latest issue.
I couldn't, in good conscience, lay that down on anyone. As much as I could spend a virtually unlimited time talking about it, presenting that in a way that people would actually read it and saying something of substance? That quickly became something impossible.
Thus, I'll talk about Ironheart issue by issue, and at some point I'll catch up to the series. Week to week I'll be dissecting another chapter in Riri's story, and put in some extra posts to cover current stuff.
Anyhow. Who is Ironheart? Well, in the absence of Tony Stark, Marvel decided to introduce Riri Williams, a 15-years-old girl from Chicago, to carry the mantle of the Armored Avenger. How did that go?
The Invincible Iron Man is dead, long live the Invincible
Wait, Tony Stark is whatnow?
He's dead. Well... who stays dead in comics, really?
At the end of Civil War II, Tony Stark is left - seemingly - dead at the hands of Captain Marvel. (Dissection of CW2 will be the topic of a later post. It's fascinating.)
Religious symbolism aside (Miles Morales' Spider-Man holding Tony is a mirror of Michelangelo's Virgin Mary holding Jesus), Tony hasn't been "alive" for a while now. Not in a traditional sense anyway.
(And this I'll definitely dissect at a later date, because it's fascinating. Not to mention how Tony's stance in CW2 echoes Captain America: from the MCU's "I thought the punishment came after the crime" to seemingly, well, dieing at the end of it.)
One of the reasons for my obsession with Iron Man's character (and Tony Stark in particular, although Ironheart is close and dear to my heart for a variety of other reasons too) is how the writers, especially of late, are finding ways to inject his storylines with very specific questions that occupy my mind as well. Like: what does it mean to be alive, really?
Most recently in the Stark Disassembled storyline we see Tony go through his evolution in reverse. Remember, at the starting point of that he's been through not only the Extremis virus upgrading his biology, but a number of other things that made him... more than human. At the end of the story arc, he's left without brain functions, memories... his body being "alive" only in a biological sense, in the care of Dr. Donald Blake (Thor's Midgard alter ego).
But of course comic book deaths are rarely permanent.
Tony is "resurrected" by way of putting an earlier "snapshot" of his personality, stored as digital data, into his body. Consequently, he doesn't remember recent events, including the "death" of Captain America. While this is something that presents a whole host of interesting questions (like how much, if at all, is he responsible for the events in the first Civil War) what's even more interesting is that Tony Stark's body becomes independent from his mind. He's depending on his chest RT unit to run basic functions like breathing, because his brain is no longer connected to his body in a traditional sense.
This idea comes back again and again, in various ways, and provides a way of bringing him back from his apparent death at the end of CW2. In more ways than one, too.
Tony has always baffled even the most gifted of the Marvel characters, but both his deaths left his friends completely in the dark. This time it's not Thor, but Hank McCoy's Beast who cares for him, with a guilt-ridden Carol Danvers also present.
One cannot help but wonder, especially knowing that Tony's AI construct of himself (which, based on what has happened, is practically himself) goes to help Riri instead of going back to his own body. Why? And the AI Tony can be caught complaining about "phantom body syndrome". There are a lot of questions still open...
... but in the meantime: enter Riri Williams.
The new Iron Man isn't a man. (Finally!)
The new Iron Man is a girl. A 15-years-old black girl from Chicago. Introduced in the Civil War II storyline, Riri Williams becomes the protegé and successor of Tony Stark - in more ways than one.
Riri is a young girl, and an African-American girl at that. Which caused some controversy, given that writer Brian Michael Bendis isn't either of those things. Being neither of those myself, I don't think it's appropriate for me to comment on that. But it is appropriate to welcome the change and the added diversity.
(And I definitely can and will comment, even if it's but a sidenote, on the accusations against Marvel that the diversification of their characters - Jane Foster as Thor, Miles Morales as Spider-Man, or Kamala Khan as Ms. Marvel, to name just a few - is nothing but a publicity stunt. People, while I emphatize to a great deal, please take your heads out of the gutter. Do you think, at the end of the day, those who read comics and are looking to identify with the characters, care about the 'why'? What they do care about, and what they should care about, is that there are heroes who look like them, who face similar challenges, and that's a good thing.)
Brian Michael Bendis had a tough job. He had to bring in this new character, but also deal with A) the fallout of the second Civil War and Tony's death; B) make an Iron Man comic book with no Iron Man in it.
Tony Stark's Iron Man became a central figure: after the whole Cinematic Universe is built on and around him, it necessarily bled into the comic books as well. But even without the MCU he became something of a moving force behind the largest story arcs, from World War Hulk to both Civil Wars.
All this means that writing Invincible Iron Man, no matter how much it focuses on Ironheart, has to include Tony in one way or another.
It's apparent that Tony's chief concern, apart from protecting the Earth, revolves around legacy. More so in the MCU, where it's much more overtly presented, but also in the comics.
Although Tony is very much a personification of living forever but constantly evolving, he's very much haunted by the consequences of his choices. As much as his intent may be good, the results of his decisions that impact the entire world around him pose questions worth asking. If you're smarter than everyone else around you, does that make you responsible for the world? How does the free will of others impact your ability to improve the world you both share? Can evolution be forced? Should it be?
These questions, and possible answers, will hopefully be discussed in the different posts of Starkplug. For now, I want to focus more on the storytelling aspect of one of the biggest changes the Iron Man comics has seen since the 1960s.
Riri becoming the new Iron Man posits a number of interesting challenges, and a long line of welcome changes in the comic.
Since the 1960s Iron Man has been rebooted, reimagined - but at the same time remained the same core character. And at a certain point it becomes difficult to give a meaningful storyline, a proper chance for character development. (Even if it's Tony Stark, whose whole character is based on constantly evolving.)
In general, changing the focus from Tony Stark is a good idea. It worked out well when it was Rhodey in the suit, or when Pepper became Rescue. But any time there was a change, it didn't change the context around Iron Man. Replacements came from his inner circle, his world.
Riri Williams isn't that - she's a completely new character.
Yes, she has her "super genius level intellect" in common with Tony, but that's it. The two of them couldn't be further apart. He has a past as a billionaire weapons manufacturer, while she's a middle-class young girl.
They share the overwhelming desire for protection and justice, but it's rooted in very different backgrounds. Tony sees his own creations, meant to protect, turned against the world. Riri sees her stepfather and her best - and only - friend gunned down in front of her. These are very different kinds of trauma.
What was really interesting to me in Issue #1 of Ironheart is how Riri strives for the same control as Tony, but coming from a very different perspective and handling it in a completely different way. Tony is an adult, and he's a wickedly talented businessman. Riri has a sense of justice and angst against randomness in a naive, innocent way. I found that a wonderful move, to present the same characteristic in such a different way.
Thus, both Tony and Riri have not only a talent when it comes to math, but their entire world view based around order. But while Tony can recognize chaos, Riri cannot comprehend "random".
So she fights back.
Modernizing Iron Man. (Wait, what?!?)
Comic books are written for young people.
That's not saying that they cannot be read by adults, quite the opposite. But there's a reality for the storyteller to consider.
Tony Stark is an appealing character. But as when it comes to younger audiences it's hard to identify with a middle-aged billionaire, no matter how cool he is. One of the reasons why Spider-Man became so insanely popular is because he was young and he had to face not just super villains, but also everyday challenges the audience could relate to.
Iron Man was overdue for creating that relatable quality.
Every issue of Ironheart starts with a recap page in the style of a vlog. Not only is that a great way to catch readers up with what's been going on, but in this day and age it's something familiar and relatable. Plus, it's a chance for the writers to put an even deeper character perspective on the narrative.
Right from the start in the first issue, Riri's recap vlog is full of questions. Which is a great way to position her: she's unsure. She's overwhelmed. She's just a kid. But, being a kid in the world of Marvel doesn't really offer much in way of insulation from the troubles, particularly if you're a kid with super genius-level intellect.
In other words, we're right in the thick of it, Riri fighting the Inhuman Animax in a greyish, bulky armor. The story is punctuated with flashbacks: of she building (from parts "salvaged" from MIT) her own armor, meeting with Natalie for the first time, and of course the fateful picnic. Flashbacks can be horribly misused, but I think that's not the case here. It structures the very brief episode of Riri's fight with Animax well, and establishes her character.
One thing I found particularly interesting is her family. The issue opens with her parents seeking help because she's behaving weirdly. And the very first thing that's impressed on them is that while Riri will never be "normal" because of her intellect, she needs an anchor to the world. It comes back again with her stepdad going a bit too far with it. Riri knows why he and her mother are doing it, and she's both annoyed by it and love it. It's her anchor that prevents her from the typical superhero disconnect.
The issue also does a good job showing that for all her talents she's far from perfect. Her fighting is improvised, relying more on reacting quickly than presenting a superior position from the beginning. She's also quite critical with herself, something that repeats itself later as well.
Again: she's fifteen. She's a kid, with all the bravado and confidence of a fifteen-year-old kid. Who, thanks to her superior intellect, exhibits those things on a larger scale.
To serve as the setup for the twist, she recognizes that running the armor effectively she needs assitance. An AI, to be specific. Iron Man, especially since the MCU, has been reliant on not only hardware but also software. The idea of humans merging (in a way) with technology on multiple levels to achieve something greater than ever before is... well, it's something that happens all the time, actually.
Humanity has always been reliant on technology. We're not a particularly adaptable species, nor are we stronger or more resilient than others. But we do have technology that we've been using since the dawn of time to master - and subdue - our surroundings. From fire to the wheel. From shovels to automated farming.
Which is why I'm constantly baffled why people regard today's technology (smartphones, the internet, etc.) with such suspicion and animosity. It's not different from whatever else came before.
But back to Riri's world: at the end of the issue her new AI is delivered. It's a gift from Tony Stark, who apparently has been keeping an eye on her. But the kicker isn't how Tony would do something like this.
The kicker is that Riri's new AI not only made by Tony Stark: it is, for all intents and purposes, Tony Stark.
Which brings up a whole new line of questions, the first of which for me was: if Tony Stark, as we know, has been a body operated by a digital copy of his consciousness... why has he dispatched his AI self to help Riri, instead of "resurrecting" himself?
Thus concludes Issue #1. Knowing what comes next, I love it - although as a standalone comic I think it doesn't necessarily deliver a powerful enough punch.
3 out of 5 stars I think is a fair rating: the artwork is gorgeous, the writing is good (it gets better - and funnier - in later issues), and Riri's character is great. But it needs an already established investment and knowledge of Tony Stark's Iron Man to be fully appreciated.
Cover and post images credit: Marvel.
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